Most fans of George Gershwin’s music would be surprised to learn of his admiration for an early atonal masterpiece: Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. He visited Berg in Vienna, and the score he owned of Wozzeck was one of his most prized possessions; he traveled to Philadelphia in 1931 to attend the work’s American premiere.
Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess is heavily indebted to Wozzeck. These debts primarily involve structural processes, understanding structure as patterns of discrete events shared by the two operas. Motives and chords play a role in the discussion, alongside musical events that range from the large—a fugue or a lullaby—to the small—a pedal, an ostinato, or some detail of counterpoint.
Beyond the presence in both operas of a lullaby, a fugue, a mock sermon, and an upright piano, the greater relevance of these parallels and others is to be found in the ways in which Gershwin situated them in comparable musical contexts.
This according to “Porgy and Bess: An American Wozzeck” by Christopher A. Reynolds (Journal of the Society for American Music I/1 [February 2007] pp. 1–28).
Today is Gershwin’s 120th birthday! Below, the atonal fugue depicting the murder of Crown from Catfish Row, his suite from the opera.
Gertrud “Trude” Rittmann was on her way to becoming one of Germany’s most promising young composers when the rise of Nazism forced her to flee to the United States in 1937.
Through her work as accompanist and music director in the New York ballet world, Rittman met Agnes De Mille; the two subsequently collaborated closely on the creation of dance music for several landmark Broadway shows.
Rittmann also created choral arrangements and underscoring for Richard Rodgers, making major contributions to The King and I, The sound of music, and South Pacific, and she worked on every musical composed by Frederick Loewe, including Brigadoon, My fair lady, and Camelot. One of her finest achievements was the original dance music for the Small house of Uncle Thomas ballet in The King and I, created with the choreographer Jerome Robbins.
This according to “A composer in her own right: Arrangers, musical directors and conductors” by Jennifer Jones Cavenaugh, an essay included in Women in American musical theatre: Essays on composers, lyricists, librettists, arrangers, choreographers, designers, directors, producers and performance artists (Jefferson: McFarland, 2008, pp. 77–91).
Today is Rittmann’s 110th birthday! Below, a performance of Small house of Uncle Thomas in 2012.
The complexity and range of Meshell Ndegeocello’s hip-hop works extend largely from her willingness to push boundaries—but in pushing sexual and gender boundaries, Ndegeocello declines to traffic in singular dimensions. Danyel Smith has described her as “an African American, woman, lesbian, musician, and mother” who thrives on “pondering the riddles that accompany all her selves.”
In Berry farms Ndegeocello addresses a female lover: “Can you love me without shame?” Giving way to the bass groove, she aggressively concludes: “Yeah, you like to mess around!” She goes on to suggest that her girlfriend prohibits them from sharing honest, enduring love for fear of public scorn because they are lesbians and because she desires the material things her “boy” can give her.
“You know how we like material things,” she observes, reminding us of the dominant perception that most black women effortlessly and willingly sacrifice substantive self-fulfillment for social approval and material gratification. The discursive modes of many of the tracks on Cookie: The anthropological mixtape strike an unambiguously combative chord with this perception by elaborating the tensions of same-sex female desire, fulfillment, and repression.
This according to “‘You sell your soul like you sell a piece of ass’: Rhythms of black female sexuality and subjectvity in Meshell Ndegeocello’s Cookie: The anthropological mixtape” by Nghana Lewis (Black music research journal XXVI/1 [spring 2006] pp. 111–30).
Today is Ndegeocello’s 50th birthday! Below, the song in question.
Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Telemusik represents an effort to create universally valid music.
In an analogy to Le Corbusier’s modulor concept, Telemusik is based on a proportional framework constructed on the Fibonacci series, through which so-called Klangobjekte—both found sounds and electronically modulated ones of the most diverse ethnic provenance—acquire musical form.
Still, the limits of the universalism sought by Stockhausen are seen in conspicuous traces of Western compositional practice.
This according to “Universalismus und Exotik in Karlheinz Stockhausens Telemusik” by Peter W. Schatt (Musica: Zweimonatsschrift XLIII/4 [Juli-August 1989] pp. 315–20).
Today would have been Stockhausen’s 90th birthday! Above, the composer around the time of Telemusik; below, the work in question.
In 2017 A-R Editions issued Walter Porter: Collected works; the volume brings together, for the first time in a critical edition, the complete works of the English composer Walter Porter.
One of a small number of English composers in the first half of the 17th century who embraced progressive Italianate methods of composition, Porter is further worthy of mention in histories of music for two reasons: he was the composer of the last book of English madrigals, and he claimed to have been the pupil of Claudio Monteverdi.
Porter’s works survive primarily in two printed collections: Madrigales and ayres (1632) and Mottets of two voyces (1657). Six of the 1657 Mottets also appear in York Minster Library, MS M. 5/1–3(S). One strophic song and three catches that may also be attributed to Walter Porter are included in an appendix. The collection is edited by Jonathan P. Wainwright.
Below, one of the works included in Madrigales and ayres.
One of Kathleen Battle’s signature achievements has been live and recorded performances of American spirituals. Her recital at the Metropolitan Opera in 2016—Underground railroad: A spiritual journey—was her first performance at the house in more than twenty years.
One of Battle’s best spiritual performances is her 1983 version of His eye is on the sparrow. She seems to be the songbird herself: sparrows really do seem to sing for no other reason than because they’re happy, and they turn their heads upward at the very last millisecond of a long bubbling trill. The rendition is a vivid display of her connection with the words of faith, certainty, and hope.
This according to “Dazzling” by Jennifer Melick (Opera news LXXXI/5 [November 2016] pp. 20–21).
Today is Battle’s 70th birthday! Above, the 2016 performance; below, the 1983 performance.
The Marx Brothers’ film A night at the opera is best known for its travesty of the high-society manners of the opera house and its sendup of Verdi’s Il trovatore. Underneath this farce, however, the film suggests deep affection for opera—a stance prompted, ironically, by the demands of the studio system.
The Hollywood movie is the heir and rival of opera as an entertainment medium, and both its follies and splendors are rooted in the immigrant experience of early–20th-century America.
This according to “The singing salami: Unsystematic reflections on the Marx Brothers” by Lawrence Kramer, an essay included in A night at the opera (London: Libbey, 1994 pp. 253–65).
Above and below, classic Marxian mayhem.
In 1967, in the hands of Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson, the incongruous, semantically complex figure of the vegetable came to illuminate aspects of psychedelic consciousness and—partly by design, partly by accident—the link between LSD and Anglo-American popular music.
Their vegetable imagery also illuminated the scope and limits of changes in the relationship between creative artists and the Anglo-American popular music industry in the mid-1960s; and in retrospect, the figure of the vegetable cast into relief the counterculture’s utopian and dystopian dynamics as manifested in these songwriters’ personal lives.
This according to “The vegetables turned: Sifting the psychedelic subsoil of Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett” by Dale Carter (Popular music history IV/1 [April 2009] pp. 57–75).
Below, one of the songs discussed in the article—Wilson’s Vegetables, which is rumored to include the sound of Paul McCartney chewing celery.